Adventures Offshore

Sunday, February 16:

Given our unusually long window of nice weather, we decided to try our luck offshore.  On the way, we happened upon a mom/calf pair that we have seen before this year: #2040 (Naevus) and her calf.  Since we had already tagged this mom, we left her and her calf and continued on our journey towards the southeast.  The ocean was fairly quiet on the way except for a few loggerhead sea turtles, a handful of birds, some clumps of Saragssum seaweed, and two shiny Valentine’s Day balloons (which we of course picked up).  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we saw some dolphins up ahead.  At first I thought it was just a small group of bottlenose dolphins, but as we got closer, I saw that there was something slightly different about their coloring.  As it turns out, these were spotted dolphins!  This being the first time I had ever seen spotted dolphins, I was ecstatic.  I also happened to be on the bowsprit when we first found them, giving me a gorgeous view of the individuals who decided to hitch a ride in our bow wave.  The Duke team took a couple of biopsy samples before we left the dolphins to rendezvous with the R/V Stellwagen.

young and older dolphins
Spotted dolphins! You can tell the animal in the foreground is juvenile because it doesn’t have spots yet
whale tangled in line
The entangled whale (#4057). You can see that line trailing from his mouth.

Between the dolphins and the Stellwagen, though, there was a blow in the distance followed by a pair of flukes: we found ourselves a right whale.  Upon closer inspection and confirmation from the offshore survey plane, this single adult whale was entangled and had line trailing behind it.

We got a DTAG on it so that the Stellwagen could keep up with the whale until the disentanglement team could get to the location and add their satellite telemetry buoy.  Once the DTAG came off and the telemetry buoy was on, the Stellwagen steamed even farther offshore on an overnight trip to swap out some autonomous recorders.

eagle eye view of tagging whale from boat
A photo of our tag deployment taken by the UNCW aerial survey team

For more information on what happened with the entangled whale after we left the scene and over the course of the next morning, check out this article by the Savannah Morning News.

Jess McCordic

Tales of Tagging

As I sit here listening to the wind rippling the flag on the deck and watching the gray waves roaring on the beach, it’s hard to believe that the weather was ever nice enough to tag whales.  Luckily for us, though, it was!  Sunday we managed to get a tag on a mom (#2123, “Couplet”) that stayed on for a little more than two hours.  The tags are programmed to come off at a preset time for retrieval, but we think this one was knocked off early by the calf rolling around on mom.  Calves seem to spend a lot of time on their mothers’ backs, especially here in the calving grounds.  It probably saves the calves a lot of energy to get some nudges here and there from mom, but it’s also not particularly helpful in keeping suction cups attached to a whale’s back.

tag being placed on back of whale
Successful tagging of #2123 (Couplet)!

If that wasn’t enough, on Monday’s trip we had glassy seas and an incredibly cooperative pair of whales.  The mother (#2040, “Naevus”) was spending lots of time at the surface, probably because her calf kept nursing.  We monitored their behavior before going in to tag, and luckily she wasn’t too wary of the boat and let us get a great approach.  After the tag was on, the whales treated us to lots of time at the surface, and we got some great looks at the interactions between mom and calf.  This little calf must have been hungry—it was nursing frequently and sticking close to mom except for a couple occasions when something piqued its curiosity.

whale in open water with tag on back
#2040 (Naevus) proudly displaying her DTAG

One of those things was our boat: after a bout of nursing behavior a few hundred meters away, both whales sank down and popped up right near the R/V Barber!  The calf came in for a curious approach before joining back up with mom.  Unfortunately, none of us got footage, but the view from the bowsprit is certainly something I’ll never forget.  Something else I won’t forget is how funny it was to watch the calf trying to breach and slap its pectoral flippers when a group of bottlenose dolphins was swimming around the calf.

whale and calf head poking out of water
#2040 (Naevus) and her calf at the surface looking adorable

After a while, we left the R/V Stellwagen with the whales and headed offshore to see if that’s where the rest of the right whales were hiding.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, but we did happen upon several loggerhead sea turtles who were probably enjoying the warmer waters near the Gulf Stream. The Stellwagen retrieved the tag with about 6 hours of recording, so all in all it was definitely a great day out there.

whale in foreground with boat in background
The R/V Stellwagen tracking the DTAG on #2040 (Naevus)

Yesterday the weather window slammed shut, so we’re stuck inside for a couple more days.  But the whales are out there, and at least some of them are letting us put tags on, so I’m optimistic about the rest of the season!

For more information about Couplet and Naevus, check out our earlier post about the ongoing right whale pedigree project.

Another project in the Southeast!

I have a new favorite thing: tagging whales.

This field season, I am working on a tagging project led by Dr. Doug Nowacek (Duke Marine Lab) with our very own Dr. Susan Parks as the Co-PI. The project aims to track as many right whales as we can to figure out just what they are doing and where they do it in Florida. The project is particularly timely given the Navy’s plans to use an undersea warfare training range adjacent to the winter calving grounds. The tags allow us to get more detailed information than vessel-based or aerial surveys alone, and the data allow the Navy to increase their understanding of how the right whales use this habitat and how to mitigate the effects of their training range.

blue boat next to dock

So where do I fit in? Well, wherever is most helpful. I am here to learn everything I can about using DTAGs, including programming, downloading, and deploying. Yesterday we went out in search of whales and found a mother/calf pair. As per usual with right whales in the Southeast, they were keeping a low profile—we first saw the calf’s back just barely visible above the water about 500 meters away. With the warm air, it’s hard to look for the distinctive V-shaped blow, so we need to rely on other cues such as the broad black back of an adult or any white water created by a whale “speeding” by at 2-3 knots.

Once we caught up with the pair, we realized that they weren’t really traveling in a single direction, making them somewhat unpredictable. We had some helpful spotters in a survey plane above us to give us an ID for the mom (NARWC #2645) and keep track of the whales for a while, and eventually we made a tagging attempt. The whales sank down at exactly the wrong moment, remaining untagged.
At one point, the calf surfaced very close to the boat, and Matt, a grad student at Duke, got a great shot of its little face! Or very large face as the case may be.

sunset on water taken through boat window

So the whales got to keep some of their secrets for at least another day, but hopefully the fog will clear this afternoon so we can find some more whales!


Spotlight on Steve

Who is Steve, you ask? Well Steve is one of our two true katydid nymphs that we have had here in the lab for a few weeks now. He lives in a nice double-decker cage with his buddy Sampson on the windowsill next to my desk where they can get lots of sun. We give them fresh food every other day and mist them with water to hydrate them. Our goal is to make them happy so that they molt. Steve and Sampson are only nymphs, and won’t make noise until they are adults. It’s actually a lot like growing a plant, except even better because you can interact with them (no offense to plants). And since we aren’t sure which life cycle stage they are in, what they look like after a molt will be a surprise.

Yesterday I was a little concerned for Steve. He wasn’t moving much and seemed sluggish. I know my Steve and I knew he was either getting ready to molt or he wasn’t feeling very well…I hoped for the best and left for the night. I came into the lab this morning and when I checked on “the boys”, what did I see? A fresh molt on the bottom of the cage! It looks kind of like a dead spider, minus two legs. I immediately started searching the cage for Steve and Sampson. The cage may not be large, but boy are those katydids camouflaged well! After a minute of searching I realized I was staring right at Steve…and he was huge!!!

green katydid sitting on leaf
Steve the oblong winged katydid!

What I also realized was that he was not a true katydid at all…they are an entirely different shape, more short and stout than long like Steve. After a bit of research I discovered that he is actually an oblong winged katydid. Who knew? Surprises all around! Now we wait and hope he starts calling. Let’s hope Sampson joins him in adulthood soon too!

Crickets and Gladiators

Today was a lesson in patience, perseverance, and thermoregulation.

With the temperatures forecasted into the 90s and the knowledge that crickets chirp more often early in the morning, we left the lab early to beat the heat and catch some crickets.

As a quick aside, our grasshoppers happen to belong to the one Genus of grasshoppers that doesn’t use sound.  At all.  Which means that the first task of today’s collecting adventure was to release them.

We drove to the field where we’ve had good cricket luck, set our grasshoppers free, and started looking.  There was only one chirping male near the roadside, and we have suspicions that it was a cricket who had outsmarted us before.  Naturally, we were determined to catch him.

“Moby Cricket,” as Dana so aptly named him, apparently had other plans.  As before, he advertised his little cricket heart out until we got too close.  Then he stopped.  It turns out that crickets are very sensitive to vibrations in the air—it’s how they detect predators.  And, of course, their first response is to become silent so they’re more difficult to find.  Which works.  Very, very well.  After what seemed like hours of playing this Cat and Mouse game, there were some uprooted plants, a handful of rather colorful words, and three very frustrated field biologists.

Forfeiting this battle to the cricket, we decided to cut our losses and try a different site.

lab member walking through field
Dana stalking Moby Cricket

SU’s South campus had been suggested by a few other ecology folks with research fields down there.  According to our sources, there should have been crickets by the boatload.  Maybe we were in the wrong field, but there was barely a katydid to speak of, much less a cricket.

Desperate to go home with some invertebrate loot, we had a serious brainstorming session.

Crickets prefer locations with water access, so we drove to the pond at Barry Park.  In retrospect, a pond was a bit overkill, but we were willing to try anything.  Although we struck out cricket-wise, we were fortunate enough to hear a new species of katydid hiding in the cattails near the pond, and these guys were LOUD!

Even though their calls are conspicuous, these new katydids (later identified as Gladiator Meadow Katydids) are sneaky.  They hang out on large stems of cattails and other plants, but when they detect something nearby, they not only stop calling but shimmy around to the opposite side of the stem.  This resulted in several instances of, “I know he’s six inches from my face, but I can’t see him!”

grass and twigs with a hidden katydid
There’s a katydid in this picture – bonus points if you find it!

We eventually got the hang of finding them, and after a couple hours of stalking katydids interspersed with shade breaks (the temps were approaching 90 by now, and feeling much hotter), we had 10 of our Gladiators and felt rather pleased with ourselves.

katydids in a bug net
Gladiator meadow katydids, successfully captured!

Total bug count as of July 15: 33

1 adult two-striped grasshopper (just in case he does make sounds), 2 Spring field crickets, 2 True katydids, 2 Bush katydids (unk. spp.), 4 Eastern swordbearers (one of which is now an adult and quite pretty!), 12 Roesel’s katydids, 10 Gladiator meadow katydids, Cicadas soon…?

lab member kissing bug cage
Dana appreciating our newly molted adult Eastern Swordbearer

Lessons learned

Yesterday was another long day of bug hunting and cage cleaning, but like every day on this project it was also a day filled with surprises. Jess, Tricia and I headed out early to try to catch some more male crickets and katydids, and maybe even something new along the way. We reached our new spot and were disappointed to hear nothing. No crickets. No katydids. Jess has a hypothesis that they all stop calling when it is cloudy, and it was definitely cloudy. In fact, before too long we had tostop and wait for a bit while it rained. Luckily it only lasted about 10 minutes and we were ready to go.

lab member hold bug net
Tricia patiently waiting out the rain!

One good thing about the rain? We had much better luck with the crickets after. It seems that maybe crickets come out into the open and move a bit more after the rain, perhaps to find a dry spot. However it works, we found 4 crickets in only a matter of minutes, 2 of which were adult males. After that, we had no more luck in the cricket department, but Jess did find a really cool looking true katydid which was pretty exciting since we haven’t seen any yet. Success!

lab member holding bug cage
Jess with her freshly caught true katydid!

After being unable to locate even a single katydid, we packed up and headed to our other collecting site, Dr. Starmer’s property. We have had luck there all summer so far and yesterday didn’t disappoint. We managed to get 8 new male Roesel’s katydids and Tricia found another true katydid. Success again!

When we got back to the lab however we realized we were in for quite the challenge. Where were we going to put all these bugs?? After quite a bit of hard thinking, we thought we had it all figured out (thought being the key word). First, we decided to paint the male katydids that we already ran experiments on so that we could house them with the new ones and still keep track of them. We tried just going in with the nail polish, and that failed miserably. We then decided maybe Jess could just hold the legs and we could quickly put a small dab of polish on him. Not our best plan…turns out katydids can willingly detach from their legs whenever they find the need. Well this one found the need. Lesson learned.

Now we were down a few more houses, so we decided all the male crickets could just simply live together right? Another bad idea…turns out crickets don’t like each other very much. After finally breaking up the near death match that soon ensued, we decided they should probably be housed separately. Lesson learned.

Now that we were still short on space, we figured perhaps we could use some spare plastic tubs we had and just poke some air holes in the top. Upon doing a quick check later on, we discovered the tubs were no longer clear…the water that we keep the plants in had completely evaporated and condensed on the sides of the tubs! We don’t know for sure, but we are assuming that might be TOO much moisture for the little guys. Apparently more air holes are needed. Lesson learned.

We eventually got everyone situated, but now our counter tops are covered by 4 bug dorms, 2 small hermit crab cages, one large hermit crab cage, and 8 small plastic tubs (with mesh for ventilation of course). We may need to rethink our layout!

Total bug count as of July 11: 43

3 bush katydids, 4 spring field crickets, 12 Roesel’s katydids, 6 migratory grasshoppers, 12 two-striped grasshoppers, 4 Eastern swordbearers, and 2 true katydids. Next up: cicadas…


Another day, another bug

Last I left you we had several species of insects, but as is often the case in science, we wanted more. So last Friday we ventured out into the field again to see what new things we could uncover. After pulling up to a new spot, we immediately heard what the sound we wanted to hear: crickets! Now the hard part came. Every time we came close to where we heard one, it stopped. Waiting it out didn’t work either; we stood still and quiet for 10+ minutes before giving up on one only to have it start calling again as soon as we had walked away. Maddening. They don’t flush out the way grasshoppers and katydids do either. Rather than hopping around when you shuffle forward towards them, they hunker down and crawl away. Since they also blend in so very well they are nearly impossible to see, nonetheless catch! Persistence pays off though. Jess was able to catch one after over two hours of trying AND it was a male. We were pretty plum pleased, albeit grossed out a bit…I mean look at it…

lab member search through field
Me hard at work searching for those crickets!
brown bug in bug cage
One hideous bug…

We also managed to catch a bunch of grasshoppers that we haven’t seen before. Success!The species count for Friday: 1 cricket, 1 unknown katydid, 1 two-striped grasshopper, 6 unknown grasshoppers, and 3 Eastern swordbearers. This brings our total bug count to 31!

bug cages on lab desks
That’s a whole lotta bugs!

We are heading out on Wednesday to see if we can catch more crickets and some new adult male Roesel’s katydids. Should be interesting!



Who knew grasshoppers could be cute??

Green bug with head sticking up over egg carton
Hi. Don’t mind me, I’m just hangin’ out.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still pretty grossed out by bugs, but honestly the grasshoppers aren’t that bad! And apparently, as proven in the above photo, they can be kind of cute! So since my last post we have done some more collecting trips and a lot more research. After only 2 losses (the weird unknown bug and one small katydid), we are now up to: 11 two-striped grasshoppers (3 that are now adults!), 7 Roesel’s katydids (all are now adults!), and 2 unknown green bugs that may or may not be the same as the one that didn’t make it. We still would like at least one more species so we can have a decent comparison. Hopefully on our next trip out (Friday) we can find something new. In the meantime, now that we have some adults (and we know only adults make sound) we can begin our experiments.

Our main problem at the moment? We are having a VERY hard time telling male and female grasshoppers apart. The katydids are easy peasy, but the grasshoppers look pretty darn similar. Since there is conflicting data on whether or not the females even make sounds, we would really like to know…if anyone out there is an expert on grasshopper gender identification, feel free to stop on by!

We have recorders set up, we have bugs making noise and we are taking notes. Stay tuned!

To catch a bug

Well we are officially beginning our venture into bug-dom. I will be the first to admit, I dislike insects. To be frank they gross me out. I really prefer things with spines…but hey, it isn’t really possible for us to bring a right whale into the lab, is it? So we will expand our horizons and our minds and branch out into the world of Orthoptera (a particularly noisy order of insects).

Our goal? To determine if these noisy bugs will shift the frequencies of their calls with varying temperatures. If they do, will there be a point where calls of different species overlap? If so, they would then be competing for acoustic space. In other words, they would have problems hearing other individuals of their own species because of this new conflict. That could be a big problem since many insects in the order Orthoptera use sound to communicate, mainly to find a mate. If they can no longer find a mate, there is a good possibility of that species falling into a decline. Bad news.

So we will venture forth and bring these beasts back to the lab where we will record their noisy calls. But first, we must catch them…not nearly as easy as you might think. Today was round one. We went out to Dr. Tom Starmer’s property, which he was kind enough to let us use. There he has acres of fields and forests. We only needed to trek to the very first field before we found what we were looking for. In fact, we only needed to use the path!

three lab members walking through a grassy path
Searching for bugs while we walk!

We caught as many cricket-like insects as we could of as many different kinds as we could (as far as we could tell anyway). Before long, we had filled our port-a-bugs and were headed back to the lab to sort out our loot!

three lab members moving a bug from a net to a cage
It is a three person job to get a bug from a net to a port-a-bug, trust me!
brown bug in a cage

Today’s totals: 6 Roesel’s katydids, 4 two-striped grasshoppers (we think), and one unknown green bug with really long legs. Now let’s see if we can keep them alive!